We are three weeks away from pitchers and catchers reporting to Spring Training. Typically, the start of Spring Training is a major bench mark. Generally it means that the worst of winter is over and while it’s still cold outside we can fill our heads with the idea of warm summer days and competitive baseball games that lie ahead.
However, my winter has not been bad at all and I’ve been inundated with reports of how the Mets are going to stink and challenge for 100 losses this season. Still, I’m not going to let either of those things take away from my joy and appreciation of the end of football season and the beginning of baseball.
Another thing you will hear over and over again is how meaningless Spring Training is. They’ll point to the countless stories of how Player X is in “the best shape of his life.” They’ll also say that the stats are meaningless because pitchers are working on new pitches and that players frequently get PA against guys who will be toiling in the minors.
All of that is true. But just because you can’t look at a player’s Triple Crown numbers the same way you do on July 1st, there’s still plenty to be on the lookout for in Spring Training. You just have to adjust your way of thinking. What that in mind, here are the top 10 things I’ll be following for the Mets this spring in St. Lucie.
10. Who is going to be the team’s fifth outfielder?
Right now the Mets have four players – Bay, Duda, Hairston and Torres – who should be on the Opening Day roster. In fact for a team predicted by some to lose 100 games, there are relatively few spots up for grabs. At the most there are three bench jobs and one relief pitching spot. And we can probably count Nickeas and Turner for two of the three reserve slots. But the fifth outfield slot is in doubt and it’s possible that the eventual winner is not even under contract yet. Here is a case where you can definitely see who has the best spring by traditional metrics and probably get a good grip on who wins the job.
9. How will the new shortstop handle replacing a fan favorite?
No doubt a lot of the doom and gloom surrounding the forecasts for the Mets has to do with Ruben Tejada playing shortstop for 150 games. Tejada does not have to be the dynamic player his predecessor was. All he has to be is the player he was in the second half of last year, the one who didn’t strike out, the one who hit line drives and the one who made all the plays in the field. I want to see Tejada act like he belongs as the starting shortstop, not a raw kid afraid of replacing a $100 million man.
8. How good defensively is the new center fielder?
Mets fans hope that Andres Torres can be an upgrade defensively for the team than what they trotted out in center in 2011. Of course, we hope he can hit, too. But I think we’ll get a much better idea of what he can do defensively than offensively down in Florida. Pagan would look less than ideal in the field at times and I want to see Torres in complete control in center, taking accurate, direct paths on fly balls, hitting the cutoff man and throwing to the right base.
7. Which rookie will get the most playing time in St. Lucie?
You can get a good read on which rookie the team holds in high regard by how many PA he gets with the major league team. Last year, Lucas Duda led the club with 71 at-bats, which gave us the idea that Terry Collins wanted to see as much of him as he possibly could. Also interesting was that Kirk Nieuwenhuis got 34 ABs, more than Fernando Martinez did. Some of Nieuwenhuis’ time came about because the club wanted an extra CF on the roster. But the Mets shipped Martinez out early, despite a .364/.481/.591 line in order to keep Nieuwenhuis, who finished with a .118/.211/.265 line. Now Nieuwenhuis is on most top prospect lists for the club while Martinez was released and is now with Houston.
6. Will the Mets have a new poet laureate on their team?
Baseball and poetry, despite its links to Walt Whitman, do not go hand in hand. It’s even rarer for the players themselves to write the poetry. There was former Met Ed Charles, who read a poem he wrote in 1962 at the ticker tape parade following the 1969 World Series, but who else? Well, Miguel Batista is a published poet. He also threw a two-hit shutout the last time he pitched. No one seems to give him much of a chance, but his willingness to pitch as either a SP or RP will help his chances to make the team out of Spring Training. He’s never had great control, but I’ll be keeping tab of how many walks he allows during Grapefruit League play. If he can improve from terrible to below average with his walk rate, he could be an asset.
5. Can the new closer get out LHB?
Last year, lefties knocked around Frank Francisco to the tune of an .819 OPS. He allowed 5 HR in 120 ABs to LHB. Francisco never showed extreme splits previously in his career and it’s possible that this was a ballpark issue, as 6 of the 7 HR that Francisco allowed in 2011 came at the Rogers Centre. Still, I want to see him do well against lefties, even if they are minor leaguers. Because if he can’t get out the minor league lefties, what hope does he have against the McCanns and Utleys?
4. Can the face of the franchise cut his whiffs?
Here are David Wright’s K/AB numbers for Spring Training and the regular season the past four years:
Wright’s huge jump in strikeouts in 2009 was first evident in his Spring Training performance. Last year in Spring Training, Wright had a significant drop in whiffs, which carried over most of the year. Through games of September 4th, Wright had a 23.1 K/AB ratio. But from September 5th to the end of the year, it was 31.1 percent. I will monitor Wright’s strikeouts and hope to find a K/AB ratio in the 15 percent range.
3. Is our first baseman healthy?
No one expected Ike Davis to miss the remainder of the season after he collided with Wright on an infield popup. But in part due to a misdiagnosis, that’s exactly what happened. Now, Davis claims he is healthy and ready to go. I don’t care if Davis doesn’t hit his weight in Spring Training. What I want to see is him moving around on the field without any discomfort.
2. Can our new second baseman hang in on the DP?
No one would blame Daniel Murphy if he was trigger-shy standing in at second base with a runner barreling down on him. Back-to-back season ending knee injuries would do that to most of us, I think. But Murphy has to realize he’s under a giant microscope, where every pivot will be examined and critiqued, where every fraction of an inch where he’s out of position offered as conclusive proof that he can’t handle the position. I want to see him turn double plays in Spring Training without any incident.
1. Can our ace pitch on a regular rotation?
Any chance of the Mets being respectable or better hinges on the health of Johan Santana. That’s frightening enough all by itself and it’s compounded by the fact that none of us know what to expect. Long-tossing is great and it’s a necessary step on the road to recovery. But Santana needs to be able to pitch from the mound and do it every five days or so. If Murphy thinks he’s under scrutiny, he should check out how everyone reacts to Santana every time he picks up a baseball. Good luck Johan, we need you!